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It's My Fault Lehigh Lost 66-7 This Weekend

One of the great things about being a student of Lehigh history is, no matter how dark your current timeline is, there is probably a time when the school had encountered something even darker.

That is where I found myself this weekend, in a deep funk after having spent my time heading to nearby Princeton, New Jersey to watch what I thought could have been a competitive game against the undefeated Tigers.

I took a break from Lehigh football after coming home from the game, walking through the fog and drizzle of the Princeton press box, across Lot 21 and getting into my car, the humidity stuck to the windows.  I drove home quietly, stopping only to get food.

I tried a few things to try to get my head right.  I watched the NFL.  I weeded.  I fixed an issue with the bumper on my car.  I even made an effort to cleaned the garage (a sure-fire sign that something is wrong  with me - my garage and workbench in particular is the biggest mess of not-put-away tools, nuts and bolts).

After all of that, still not feeling better, at night, I then, as I sometimes do, looked back at some of the darker times of Lehigh football. 

One such time was the 1920s, where I stumbled upon some of the old Lehigh Alumni Bulletins of the time.  (I looked some of these over as research for my book, "The Rivalry", a few years ago.)

In the 1926-1927 edition, I found a remarkable article from the incomparable Walter Raleigh Okeson

A Lehigh football alum, former coach, player, official and NCAA rules administrator, the tireless "Okey" was truly one of the great Lehigh football alums that not only helped direct the game of collegiate football from the "Flying Wedge" days to the days of the forward pass, he also was a hugely influential alumnus and fundraiser for Lehigh as well.

In an era where the word "influencer" was unknown, "Okey" could have been the original influencer.  He would have been terrific on Twitter, knowing who to talk to, how to raise money, and even at a higher level how to improve the game of football.  One thing he did within the NCAA was insist that protective headgear be mandatory.

The 1926 football season was an especially grim one for Lehigh. 

Going into the final game of the season, Lehigh was 1-7 and essentially had about a snowball's chance in hell at upending the 1926 Lafayette Leopards, whose 8-0 team was one of the most dominant Lafayette teams of that era.  It came as a surprise to nobody that Lafayette would win 35-0 over a completely overmatched Lehigh team.

So in the 1926 Alumni Bulletin, Walter Okeson wrote something brilliant.  It was a piece called "It's Okey's Fault!"

"There are two questions being asked by Lehigh's alumni," the piece read.  "First, 'What was the matter with our football team?'  The answer is, 'Not enough good material'.  The second question follows naturally.  'Whose fault is it that sufficient material of the right calibre is lacking?'  And the answer is, 'The primary cause is Okey and the course he has pursued over the past several years."

But the genius of his piece was that he took responsibility for everything bad that had happened.  He said said not to blame the coaches, the students, the faculty, the President, the Alumni Board of Trustees, or even the graduate manager.  He said, in all caps, "BLAME ME!", and then explained exactly why you should "blame him".

He related a story where somebody was trying to scam him into paying for great football players - unqualified academically - to matriculate at Lehigh.  He refused, and essentially forced them to skip town and head back to central Pennsylvania.

The purpose of the story was to illustrate that Okey decided that he would no longer play by the system of paying players below board and embarking in questionable academic practices to get players to go to Lehigh.  That was why "sufficient material of the right calibre" was lacking.

This remarkable piece wouldn't end there.

"We want clean athletics but we also want to win at least a fair proportion of our contests," he continued.  "Such teams are quite possible of realization if we are willing to cooperate instead of pulling in different directions.  You don't need hired football players to make a team but you do need morale.  We do not have much of that, for we have spent our energy in squabbling amongst ourselves.  We must build from the ground up now.  Either that or go buy a team.  There is no middle ground.  As Aubrey Weymouth succinctly summed it up, 'You can't be a prostitute part of the time.'"

It is in that spirit where I would like you, dear reader, to blame me for the loss that happened this weekend, and to blame me personally for the Lehigh football team going 1-4 to start the season.

Let me tell you why.

*****

Once upon a time, the schools of the Patriot League were prohibited from offering direct football scholarship aid to their students.

By the rules of the league, schools were required to have recruited football players go through the financial aid office, where they were required to go through the sliding scales to determine how much families could afford, how much was grant, how much was loan, and how much work-study was required.

This commitment to "non-scholarship" athletics league-wide was a part of the founding principles of the Colonial League, set up in 1987, soon rebranded as the Patriot League by 1987 with that same philosophy in all sports. 

At first, the schools tried their best to adhere to the "no scholarship aid" policy, but soon saw a steep decline in the quality of some of their athletics, especially in men's basketball.  It was that that spurred the first crisis of the league - Fordham, an original member, couldn't abide without scholarship basketball, and joined the Atlantic 10 in all sports.  When Holy Cross also threatened to bolt, the leadership of the Patriot League relented and allowed scholarships in men's basketball (and women's basketball, in part to satisfy Title IX funding requirements).

When I was a student at Lehigh, we were in our final years in the East Coast Conference in basketball, which at that time included schools like Drexel, Bucknell, and Towson.  When Lehigh qualified for the ECC final in 1991, the thought was that it might be the last time Lehigh might ever qualify for the NCAAs because the Patriot League at that time didn't have an autobid, and as a non-scholarship league, it was assumed that the teams would fall off the athletic map.

That didn't happen, of course.  By the mid-1990s the Patriot League would still get an autobid, and eventually, gradually, all the teams of the Patriot League (save Army and Navy) were offering some sort of scholarship aid in basketball.

But football was the final line in the sand that the Patriot League presidents didn't want to see go scholarship.  One of the reasons was cost - the fear was spending money on football scholarships at private, high-tuition institutions like Patriot League schools would simply blow out athletic budgets.  The other was the impression that football scholarships was essentially like pay-for-play and that it was a moral rubicon that should not be crossed.

This is where I came onto the scene.  I had attended my first Lehigh football game in 1988 and never really stopped going to the games.  I'd show up, bring friends, try to rustle up interest to not only show up at Lehigh/Lafayette, but Lehigh/Bucknell, too.  I'd sweet-talk my friends to see games at Columbia and Fordham. 

And when Lehigh made the I-AA playoffs in 1998 and earned a trip to UMass in the quarterfinals, I convinced a bunch of pals to crash at my place and leave at 6AM to drive all the way up to Springfield, Mass, to watch a playoff game with a noon kickoff.

I had seen Lehigh do outstandingly well in football, though I would learn later that part of that success would be due to technicalities with athletic aid.  Though technically athletes were still required to go through the athletic aid office, in certain cases the "loan" portions were converted to "grants".  In the eyes of the NCAA, this was considered a "football scholarship".

So in my mind, I saw the difference between grants of this nature and conventional "football scholarships" as unnecessary ones of accounting. 

If Lehigh was able to recruit such exceptional talent while requiring their athletes to go through the unnecessary paperwork of going through the financial aid office - imagine what could be done if they could offer the same types of scholarships that, say Delaware could offer.  A football playing student-athlete comparing Delaware and Lehigh educations - would it even be a choice?  It would expand the number of players Patriot League schools could recruit - not just at Lehigh, but across the league.

Dear reader, I fought for football scholarships.  I wrote about it incessantly in this space.  I'd engage anybody who cared to hear about it.  To me, it made no sense.  The Patriot League was able to get kids who qualified for full financial aid, and they would be able to get kids who could afford to pay their own way, but they couldn't consistently get kids in the middle.  If the choice was a full ride at Delaware and a half scholarship at Lehigh because the family owns two cars, it wasn't much of a choice for most people.  They'd become Blue Hens.

The other thing was that we knew what was going to happen, because men's basketball had gone through the process five years earlier.  What was learned was that offering scholarships actually increased the academic numbers of the teams.  Increasing the possible pool of players increased the academic numbers of possible recruits, too.

This, readers, is where I blame myself.  I got too carried away with the idea of expanding the pool of football recruits and the thought that teams would be able to, across the board, get some great players schools couldn't get before. 

And that part of the equation was true.  There unquestionably have been some awesome athletes in the Patriot League, like Bucknell OL Julie'n Davenport, Lehigh WR Troy Pelletier, Fordham RB Chase Edmonds, Lafayette RB Ross Scheuerman, Colgate DL Pat Afriyie, and Holy Cross QB Pete Pujals, and arguably all of these athletes would have probably gone elsewhere had conventional scholarships not been available.

But I didn't notice some of the conditions that were set in order for the Patriot League to accept football scholarships.

I didn't notice the shrinkage of Patriot League football team squads to merely 90 players, an addition that was not announced along with the big reveal in 2012 that the league would allow football scholarships, and I should have.  I should have.  Blame me.

I was a fool not to see that the success of Villanova, Delaware, and North Dakota State were not only due to scholarships, though they certainly were a part of it.  It was also the ability of these schools to assemble a preseason roster of 120 (or more) players, with not only scholarship players but kids that are walk-ons, preferred walk-ons, grayshirts, and others. 

Look on any good FCS roster - Princeton, North Dakota State, Villanova.  Somewhere, you'll see a duplicated number.  That's a pretty strong indication that you have over 100 numbers on your roster, all of whom can dress at home games against non-conference foes.  That's also an indication that you have a robust walk-on program, scout team, and the like.

A secret in college football is that teams with good scout teams and a pool of kids that don't necessarily have football scholarships tend to make better football players on Saturdays.  It was true in 1926, when guys like Walter Okeson and the student managers would try to drum up kids at Lehigh to play on the scout team.  Occasionally they'd find someone whom they didn't even knew existed and they would start.  That also happened in 1926, and it happens today.

But I blame myself.  I wasn't smart enough to see the effect that this would have at a league-wide level.  (How many times had I seen Rudy?  20?) 

Patriot League schools have a lot of talent - arguably the high end of the talent they have is better than the league has ever had.  But with limited overall rosters, a diminished number of scout team/walk-on potential players, and a FCS that is loaded with schools constantly trying to get an edge on its competition, the roster box they have put themselves in hurts.

*****

All the mea culpas above are true, and it's something that needs to be addressed this offseason, immediately, in order to allow schools to get more competitive out-of-conference with teams that aren't choosing to hamstring themselves in this way (like the Ivy League, for example, who are no longer showing any restraint).  Removing roster limits would help the most.  Allowing redshirting, even on simply a limited basis, might help too.

But it doesn't change anything about this season, and competing this season, which is the main point of emphasis today.  If the Patriot League were to read this and change tomorrow, that wouldn't affect this season.  So today, what is wrong?

On this, too, blame me.

"Such teams are quite possible of realization if we are willing to cooperate instead of pulling in different directions.  You don't need hired football players to make a team but you do need morale.  We do not have much of that, for we have spent our energy in squabbling amongst ourselves.  We must build from the ground up now.  Either that or go buy a team.  There is no middle ground."

That Walter Okeson passage really hit me at a very fundamental level.  This season, why didn't I see things about this 2018 football season getting pulled in different directions? 

I've been covering Lehigh football for a whole lot of years now, and I have seen a lot of stories written.  I have seen supremely talented teams tear themselves apart and get their butts beaten in the worse sorts of blowouts, and I've seen teams that seemed like they were destined for mediocrity and instead won the Patriot League - and beaten teams in the FCS Playoffs.

I've seen teams struggle almost an entire season, and then turn it around in the very last few games, beat a superior Lafayette team, and use that to springboard the Lehigh football program to one of its best stretches, including beating FCS Playoff teams.

But watching this weekend's game vs. Princeton was awful.  It's impossible to sugar-coat.  Not all that long ago, Lehigh was not only beating Princeton, but dropping 42 points on them.  In this weekend's game, the final score read 66-7.  It was as ugly as the score.

A few years ago at Princeton, after a 52-26 defeat, I asked head coach Andy Coen point-blank if he thought his team needed to play the perfect game to beat the Tigers.  "Absolutely not," he told me.  "I'd line up again right now and play them again if I could."  At the time, it felt true.  Lehigh had lost, but the truth was both teams were not that far away from each other. 

That Lehigh team with QB Nick Shafnisky was a game where talent-wise, both teams were close matches, but the Mountain Hawks killed themselves with silly mistakes.  With each mistake, Princeton pounced and scored quickly.

But the game weekend was different.  In the second half, Princeton received the opening kickoff, and scored in three plays.  The Lehigh offense couldn't score a single point in the second half, and the starters got a grand total of 3 first downs against Princeton's second-teamers in that half as well.  Meanwhile, Princeton put up 21 more points, not through trickery but just with straight-up uncomplicated playbook football - on our first string defense.

Some interpret that as "Princeton's backups are better than our starters talent-wise," but I disagree.  What I believe this shows is a team whose morale is broken.  You don't need hired football players to make a team but you need morale.

If there is one thing I know about playing about Lehigh is that it is hard.  If you want a bunch of cakewalk courses and just scrape by academically and play football as your one job, Lehigh isn't for you.  If you are a high academic achiever but aren't willing to put in the time and energy to reach your full potential as a football player, Lehigh isn't for you.

If you do accept that challenge to be a Lehigh football player, you will be blessed with a bunch of alumni and people that very much do care.  You will not toil in anonymity.  Your story will be told, with the help of The Brown and White, The Express-Times and The Morning Call, or even without those papers if necessary.  I'll be here as long as I can.  I'm still here.

But with that level of coverage comes the other stuff.  It comes with anonymous message board posts, some praising to the heavens, and others offering nothing but ill.  Some is good, some is bad, but it's all there, and it's there at every college football team, FCS or FBS, that is successful.  In my opinion it's much better than people not caring at all, but I also understand that not everyone feels this way.

The press and the internet isn't always the cause of bad morale, but it certainly isn't much of a help.  I wonder at times if I did something to cause the bad morale.

For my part, I could have been a unifier, sooner.  I could have sensed the malaise in this team, running throughout the different teams, coaches and whatnot, and done more to try to write about it, so that it could be dealt with.  I could have said the truth - that I want nothing more than to write the story of the successful 2018 Lehigh football season, and how my wish is that this team finds a way to get over their internal divisions, beat Fordham this weekend, beat Georgetown the following week, and then see what happens.

For it is obvious that this team is racked by internal divisions.  A team that is together doesn't give up those last three touchdowns, or get shut out offensively in the second half.  And I didn't see it.  I didn't talk about it.  Blame me.

This team has talent.  I know it and have seen it.  I've seen the team practice and I know there are good athletes on this team across the board.  What I don't see is a talented team pulling together in the same direction.  If this team can get on that same page, and pull in the same direction, and stay healthy, there is no reason why Lehigh cannot win the rest of their games against the Patriot League and and have a chance to defend their Patriot League title and forge a new yearly tradition to spend the Sunday after Lehigh/Lafayette finding out who they are to play in the FCS Playoffs.

So the Lehigh football season is 1-4, and I see why.  That was my fault.

But for now, I'd like to see this football team put aside everything that's pissed them off over the last three weeks and hit somebody this Saturday.  I want to see this team hit somebody and prove to everyone what they are, prove that they are not the team that gave up 3 touchdowns to Princeton.  Want to change the narrative of a team racked with internal divisions that can't just get it together?  Prove it.  Prove it this Saturday. 

Have me write a better story than the sad one from this weekend.  I know it's possible.  I just want to see it.

Comments

Anonymous said…
I got bored half way through and that's your fault.
Anonymous said…
You are much more forgiving than I am. The Princeton game was a total embarrassment. The defense has been really bad for the several years. Next to last out of about 130 teams in the FCS last year. Two questions must be answered: 1} Why is the defense so consistently bad, 2) Why has Lehigh become so non-competitive with its non-league opponents despite the awarding of scholarships when the scholarship policies of those opponents has not changed.

The fact that Lehigh won the Patriot League last year was only because the quality of play in the Patriot League was really bad.

Maybe it's time for a complete overhaul of the coaching staff.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for a thoughtful and well written piece.

Since the advent of scholarships, the football program has gone down - not up. This indicates that Coach Coen and his staff struggle to recruit in the scholarship era (or others, e.g. Colgate, know how to do it much better).

Last year's Patriot League Championship (with an overall losing record) gave AD Sterrett an excuse to delay the inevitable for a year. The time has now come for change. If Sterrett won't make the change, then President Simon needs to say good-bye to both. If Simon won't take action, then the Board can totally clean house.

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